***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Meg Gardiner
When it started, Harper Flynn had a fifth of vodka in her hand, six shot glasses lined up on the bar in front of her, and a stinging cut on her arm from a broken beer bottle. Music rained through the refurbished warehouse, a sheet of noise. Harper poured the martini into a chilled glass. Down the crowded bar, a banker waved his empty highball glass and a twenty. She nodded. Macallan, neat, with a Stella back—she’d get to him. She’d get to them all. Eleven p.m. and she was halfway through her shift.
She slid the martini glass toward the man in the suit. “Fourteen-fifty.”
He frowned and shouted over the band. “For an ounce of vodka and an olive?”
She smiled. “For turning you into James Bond.” And for not spitting in it.
The dance floor was a swerving mass of spangled people. On the walls, flat screens projected glossy music videos. In booths and at tables along the balcony, cooler customers leaned back, holding court over bottles of Bollinger. The stage lights skewed the space between white glare and murky corners. The warehouse windows were milky with moonlight, pierced by occasional Los Angeles headlights.
The suit stroked the stem of the martini glass. “I’ll pay four bucks.”
“Fourteen-fifty,” Harper said, still smiling, but both hands on the bar now.
She wore a black cotton blouse, sleeves rolled to the elbows, and black jeans he couldn’t see, because he was too busy trying to Jedi mind-trick her buttons open. Next to him, a woman leaned back, laughing, hand to her chest.
From the crowd, Drew appeared behind the suit. Eyes on Harper, shoulders square, as though he was lining up to head-butt the man.
Drew leaned toward the guy’s ear. “How’s your drink?”
The man looked up at him, several inches. Noticed the black shirt, the chilly eyes, the cornerback’s body.
Harper said, “His drink’s about to be paid for.”
Maybe half a second the guy held on, wanting to yank her chain again. Then he slapped fifteen bucks on the bar and skulked off.
Drew smiled. “He thought I was your boss.”
That smile was wicked, and overtly pleased.
“Never,” she said. “Not even when we play dress-up later on.”
He didn’t work there. He only worked his way under her skin, into her thoughts, her days, her nights. Now he was laughing. She nodded at the far end of the bar and walked down. He followed.
He slid her employee swipe card into her hand. “Thanks.”
She clipped the card to her belt, quietly, her back turned to the club’s CCTV camera. “What’s it like outside?”
“Zoo. Line around the block, Security’s wanding guys and carding teenage girls.”
“But they’re still letting people in?”
He raised his eyebrows. The walls seemed to bulge under the press of the crowd. Fire limit was twelve hundred. That many seemed to be clamoring for drinks.
Harper said, “Your sister’s not out there, is she?”
He laughed. “Piper might be able to fake her way past security, but she knows you’re working. You’re scarier than any bouncer.”
“That’s my motto. Now buy a drink. And tip me big.”
Drew had borrowed her swipe card so he could avoid the hassle of security at the front entrance when he came back in. He eyed the bottles arrayed behind her.
She added, “And no, you may not challenge me to mix the worst drink possible. I will not serve you an Antifreeze. Or a Brain Tumor.”
“An Old-Fashioned,” he said.
She wiped her hands on her apron. “Bourbon or rye?”
“What’s the most old-fashioned?”
She set a glass on the bar. “You stir it for eighteen minutes to muddle the drink.” She dropped in a sugar cube, added Angostura bitters and water, and stirred with a spoon. “That’s how Al Capone demanded it.”
She filled the glass with Wild Turkey, shoveled in ice cubes, and nudged the glass at him.
The band hit a final chord. Definitely Arson was the hot ticket that had drawn this whooping crowd to the Valley on a Saturday night. In a booth near the stage, a glass broke. A woman squealed. An ice bucket tipped over.
One of the other bartenders, Sanita, said, “High roller. Vegas millionaire, I heard.”
Harper glanced at the booth. Everything seemed brilliant and shadowed.
Across the dance floor, at the main entrance, a man came up the stairs. He stopped in the doorway. Hands at his sides, jacket open. For a second, he struck Harper as a gunslinger, readying himself to draw, waiting for an opponent to rise up from the swirl in front of him. A woman came in the door beside him, a blonde, same urgency, same eyes.
The band launched into a new song. Down the bar, a man whistled and shouted, “Cuervo.”
At the door, the harsh-eyed man and woman surveyed the room in slow tandem, like twin Terminators. Drew leaned on the bar, rattling the ice in his glass. Harper took the Cuervo Gold from the shelf.
The first sound was a muffled pop. The man and woman with the gunslinger eyes turned toward the high roller’s booth. Harper’s skin prickled.
A second report hammered beneath the drumbeat. It was unmistakable, a noise she knew from the firing range and a thousand TV shows, a sound it seemed she had been expecting all her life: gunfire.
Aiden Garrison turned at the noise. “Shots fired.”
From the doorway, he scanned the club. With its heaving swirl of dancers and the thunder of the band, it might as well have been a riot. Beside him, Erika Sorenstam drew her weapon. The stage lights flashed against her blond hair and the badge hooked on her belt.
“Where?” she said.
People continued dancing, arms upraised. It was a jungle, swaying as though under the force of the beat, and he couldn’t see the snakes.
Across the club, the man in the booth by the stage—heavyset, young, and sweating into his two-thousand-dollar suit—pointed at the crowd. Arliss Bale, Vegas hotshot, known meth wholesaler. His body- guards rose and stormed into the crowd.
“They’re going for Bale.” Garrison shouldered his way onto the dance floor. His weapon was already in his hands.
Beneath the crash of cymbals, a third shot reached his ears. So did the first scream.
The scream barely cut through the blare of the singer and guitars. Harper’s palms went clammy. Drew turned toward the sound.
In the booth by the stage, bodyguards lunged to their feet. They dragged Mr. High Roller from his seat. Another shot echoed.
Harper shouted, “Gunshots. Everybody get down.”
The band kept playing. The crowd kept dancing. Then screams came like a rock slide, pebbles at first, rolling, escalating, until noise and fear cut through the center of the floor, an avalanche. The music dribbled to a stop.
“Go,” Harper shouted. “Get out. Now.”
Without music, the screams took over. The customers at the bar scattered. People spilled out in all directions, frantic, eyes round. The booth near the stage had emptied, bodyguards rushing into the crowd, Mr. Big on his knees, reaching into his suit jacket for a weapon or his valet parking ticket, something to transport him out of there.
On the dance floor, a woman tripped and fell. Three feet from Harper, Sanita swiped her card to lock out the register. She was punching the screen when the shot hit her in the chest.
She keeled back against the bottles behind her, and dropped.
“Sanita,” Harper cried.
Drew leaned across the bar and grabbed Harper’s hand. “This way.”
Harper resisted. “Sanita’s hurt.”
Sanita sat, legs splayed, hand pressed to her chest. She stared astonished at the blood seeping between her fingers.
Two people dived across the bar and rolled to the floor, taking cover. Drew pulled on Harper’s arm. Behind him, a man huffed as if he’d been hit with a sledgehammer. Blood erupted from his shoulder.
People were stampeding, hands out, some looking back. For a moment, the dance floor cleared and gave Harper a clean view of the room.
A man in a hoodie, wearing gloves and a gas mask, was advancing toward the high roller’s bodyguards, arm extended, firing a pistol. He seemed unhurried.
Drew tightened his grip on her arm. “Come on.”
The gunshot took him high in the back and knocked him against the bar.
Aiden Garrison and Erika Sorenstam forged through the crowd, shoving against the tide. Garrison held his weapon with both hands. The lights flipped blue, strobing, women in iridescent dresses racing past. One shied and screamed at the sight of his gun.
“Sheriff ’s department. Move,” he said.
Sorenstam’s face was washed blue beneath the lights. She spoke into her shoulder-mounted radio. “Shots fired at Xenon.”
She held her weapon aimed at the hardwood floor. The strobes flashed in her eyes. Garrison continued to scan the room.
Two bodyguards from the booth headed into the melee—suits, glass stares, earpieces, shoving people aside.
One of them went down in the crowd as though he’d been nailed by a shark. Garrison eyed the trajectory the shot had taken. He saw the fleeting profile of a man in a hoodie, wearing a mask. And behind that man, another. Heading toward the bar. Guns in their hands.
Garrison plunged after them. “Sorenstam.”
She didn’t respond. Alarm jacked through him. He fought against the stampede and passed a man who’d been shot. The man lay face-down, motionless, getting kicked like a rugby ball. Garrison knelt briefly, trying to form a barrier. He put two fingers to the man’s neck. No pulse.
He stood. Between fleeing people, two gray hoodies wove their way across the floor, a counterflow, methodical. Another gunshot boomed out. He turned. Who had fired? Where was Erika?
A woman bumped into him, hands out. Beyond her was a shooter, dark hoodie, face covered by a gas mask. The shooter raised a silver pistol. The hoodie rode up his back. Chones hanging out over sagging jeans. Pale white rind of skin visible around his waist. He stalked toward the bar.
Where a young guy in a black shirt had been hit and lay splayed across the counter. And Garrison saw the young bartender.
“Drew,” Harper said.
She could barely hear herself. Her field of vision had collapsed into a bright shriek. Drew lay crashed across the bar, gasping. His fingers clawed the wood. Blood spread from the exit wound in his chest. Behind him came the reflected flash of silver, from the handgun pointing directly at him.
Dark figures moved against the turbulent flow of the crowd. Shadows, golems, men in masks. One turned her way. The plastic eyeholes of his gas mask glittered under the stage strobes.
Drew tried to straighten, but slid backward toward the floor.
Harper grabbed his wrist. “No.”
He looked at her, distantly, seemingly surprised by pain.
A bullet shattered the mirror behind her. Harper flinched. Glass waterfalled to the floor. Sanita cried out and curled into a ball. The man in the gas mask was closer.
Drew slipped another inch. Harper’s system flooded with adrenaline. Hanging tight to his wrist, she scrambled onto the bar and across.
Sanita cried, “Harper—no.”
Harper jumped down on the far side of the bar. Drew slid to the floor.
She dropped to his side, heart thundering. “Come on.”
He swiped a hand in her direction. “Can’t breathe.”
“Hold on.” She worked her arms around him and labored to her feet.
Cover, she needed cover. The main door was a hundred fifty feet across the dance floor. The staff entrance—the door Drew had used earlier—was closer. She turned toward it. A shooter stood in front of it, aiming at the high roller’s booth. Dammit. Groaning with effort, she turned again and hauled Drew toward the end of the bar. She had to get behind it. His heels dragged on the wood. His shirt gleamed wetly.
Hundreds of people were still trying to get out of the club. The shooter turned in her direction. The eyeholes of his gas mask looked black and void. Harper’s skin, her bones, the air around her, felt electric.
She lugged Drew backward, arms aching. He didn’t rise, didn’t help her, sank lower in her arms. “Westerman, come on, man. Come on.”
The man in the gas mask reached inside his sweatshirt. When he pulled his hand out again, Harper stumbled.
He held the worst drink ever invented. The Molotov cocktail.
He jammed his pistol into the waistband of his sagging jeans, took out a lighter, and lit the rag in the bottle. Hell, Harper thought. Oh, hell. Chaotic flames illuminated a crawling black tattoo on his hand and reflected in the eyeholes of his mask.
Then, deep in the crowd behind him, another figure became visible: the man with the Terminator stare. He raised a gun. He was shouting. Maybe Don’t move. Maybe Freeze.
Gas Mask turned his head sharply. Turning back, he pitched the bottle against the wall above the bar. It burst with a clattering chime. Gasoline bloomed into flame like a sightless orange eye.
Harper staggered. “Jesus.”
Liquid flames spilled and flared. Gas Mask tipped his head up as they climbed the wall. Insect-quick, he lobbed something else into the fire, ducked, and disappeared back into the crowd.
Smoke boiled onto the ceiling and curled over on itself. Sanita crawled from behind the bar, aided by another bartender.
Harper called to them. “The door—gotta get out.”
With a percussive crack, the bar exploded. Red-white flames starburst and shrapnel flew. Harper cringed against Drew, gasping. She inhaled caustic smoke. Choking at the smell and taste and fearful heat of it, she coughed and inhaled even more.
Lock it down. Basic training came back to her. Hold your shit together, and get out.
The fire inflated. It boiled up the walls, engulfed the bar, and streaked along the floor. The smoke alarm tripped, a solid high-pitched shriek. Drew hung heavy in her shaking arms. She looked over her shoulder. The main door was one hundred twenty feet away. Beyond it, the stairs were jammed. A cry lodged in her throat. The stairs were packed so solid with people that none of them could move. They were yelling, writhing like worms.
The CO2 fire suppression system activated. But across the club, a man smashed a window with a chair. Oxygen gushed in. The flames welled and roared across the ceiling. The heat swelled appallingly.
A fleeing woman tripped into Drew. He blinked but didn’t move. Harper checked the other direction, the staff door at the back of the club. Black smoke nearly obscured it. Dozens of people were trying to shove through it. But gliding her way were three hooded figures. Amidst the panic, they seemed impervious. The blaze seemed to burn from within their gas masks. Smoke enveloped them, then cleared around the one in the center. Under the light of the flames, the crawly black tattoo seemed to writhe. The silver pistol in his hand swept slowly across the room, gradually closing on her and Drew.
Garrison tracked the shooters through rushing people and flashes of white flame and lowering black smoke. Hoods, masks, strutting across the dance floor. One raised his gun and aimed at the young brunette bartender. The pistol straight out, shoulder hunching, almost a parody of a gangsta pose, sweatshirt riding up, stalking across the floor, ignoring the fire he’d started.
Garrison barged toward him, coughing, trying to get a clear shot through the crowd and smoke. The shooters progressed in a straight line across the club, maybe sweeping the room for their original targets. They neared the wounded young man and the bartender, a slight woman who was straining to drag him to safety. Her hair was falling in front of her face. Her eyes were huge and desperate, but not craven— they glinted with firelight. She meant to save the young man even as the shooters and the fire bore down on her.
Garrison took aim. “Sheriff ’s department. Drop your weapons,” he yelled.
The shooter didn’t respond. Garrison kept advancing. The gunman had a clear shot. He himself didn’t. The smoke billowed, obscuring all three shooters. Then, with a gust, it cleared. Garrison had an unobstructed field of fire. He squeezed the trigger. One of the gunmen went down. Garrison held his breath and swept his weapon right, and a second shooter was spinning in his direction, gun coming up. Garrison fired again.
Then, with a loud crack and a slithering shift in the floor, the world ended.
The wall of heat seemed to radiate through Harper. The fire bellowed, yellow, sliding around the room. Sparks and glass and the floor creaking. She turned frantically toward the staff exit. The door was nearly obscured by smoke, but scurrying feet ran through it, to the back hall, and it snapped shut.
She wrestled Drew toward the exit, groaning. The floor shifted beneath her. In front of the flaming bar, two shooters were down. From out of the smoke emerged the man with a gun and a badge.
She kept moving, even as the noise in the room turned to apocalypse, even as she knew the door was close, but too far. The cop was coming for her.
The floor opened up beneath him. With a firework of sparks and tearing wood, it collapsed. The wall came down with it. The club, the shooters, the night, her life, all disappeared into it. For a second, she caught the cop’s eye, until smoke and flame and the falling floor swallowed him. She felt Drew slipping and thought: I’m only a minute behind you into death.